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Celebrity fury not enough to tame lion killers


Hunter Walter James Palmer, left, with another lion he killed.

It's become a poignant pastime, observing endangered animals in the wild. Last week I spotted seven rhino while visiting South Africa's Kruger National Park on a family holiday.

We'd been in the vast wilderness reserve for less than an hour when we encountered the first lot, two white rhino blissfully asleep in the shade of a tree just off a lonely dirt road in the park's south.

They weren't immediately discernible through the gauze of afternoon sunlight and brittle winter bush, and when finally their bulky shapes came into focus they seemed like a beautiful, sacred gift.

It was a bittersweet sight. In the 13 years since we were last in this park — a place we visited frequently before leaving South Africa — rhino poaching has become commonplace. One relative told me a rhino is killed here every seven hours. Another said she'd seen hyenas feasting on the body of a rhino, its horn hacked off in an apparent poaching.

In 2007, 13 rhinos were recorded as having been poached in South Africa; by 2014 that number had risen to 1215.

But it's not just rhino, with their apparently curative and aphrodisiacal horns beloved of Asians, that are subject to such brutality. 

The epidemic of African wildlife poaching returned to the headlines this week with news that an American hunter had killed a much-loved lion, Cecil, in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. Cecil, who had been collared by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University as part of a long-term study, was allegedly lured out of the park with fresh bait and shot with a bow and arrow. The injured animal was then tracked for around 40 hours before finally being put out of his misery.

The hunter, identified as Minneapolis dentist Walter Palmer, appears contrite, claiming he wasn't aware he'd breached the terms of his hunting permit. But the images of his previous kills now circulating on social media paint a bloodthirsty picture: a beaming Palmer squats beside a white rhino, a quiver of arrows propped against its dead body; a grinning Palmer stands behind a dead lion, its mighty head drooping and defeated; a bare-chested Palmer grips a bleeding, lifeless leopard.

The idea that a man might get pleasure from killing an animal that is worthless to him in any utilitarian sense is deeply disturbing. While hunting for subsistence or culling for game management can be justified, it's retrograde in this era of animal rights awareness for animals such as lions to be bred specifically for the hunt, and for hunters to pay obscene sums of money to sink a bullet or a bow between the animal's ribs before posing with its bloodied, lifeless body.

Such 'leisure activities' speak to a base instinct to control, brutalise and defeat — an anomaly at a time when animal rights have been elevated and conservation in its broadest sense is under extreme threat.  

Despite this, the outpouring of fury at Palmer by celebrities and the ordinary public on Twitter and other social media platforms feels somewhat hypocritical and opportunistic. It's all too easy to respond to injustice when there are faces and names to compel our rage: we can cast as the victim Cecil, the black-maned lion of Hwange, and the perpetrator Palmer, a murderous dentist from Minneapolis.

But lions are hunted frequently in Africa, largely by Americans with deep pockets. Cecil is in the news because he'd been anthropomorphised with a sweet name and had a collar from an esteemed university attached to his neck. Sensing the public interest in such a tragedy, celebrities have confected their own outrage and so catapulted themselves into the news alongside the doomed Cecil himself.

But what of all the other nameless, collarless animals hunted for fun every day? What about the animals destroyed on behalf of people wealthy enough to buy their by-products, the rhino that is killed every seven hours in South Africa, the elephants that are being butchered in Central and East Africa, the pangolins being poached in Southern Central and East Africa?

Alas, there is no sustained Twitter rage against the people half a world away who are causing the decimation of these animals before the world's very eyes.

A brief burst of anger at the isolated participant of a large and insidious practice will never bring about meaningful change. Animal lovers — and celebrities in particular, who have the power to mobilise social change — should focus their rectitude not on the man who killed Cecil, but at the system that allowed him to do so, a culture that nurtures violence and begets brutality, and a society lacking in humaneness.

They should speak out not just today but frequently about the rearing of lion cubs for the hunt, the harvesting of rhino horn and elephant tusks and pangolin scales, until the consumers of these products understand the damage they're inflicting on Africa's fragile, deeply threatened eco-system.

And big game farmers, in turn, would do well to understand that conservation is not best served by wealthy tourists thirsty for the blood of wild animals. The practice of sports hunting, while generating great sums of money, creates a culture in which wildlife is at its most precious, its most gratifying, when it is dead.  

More information: savetherhino.org

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney based freelance journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: catherine marshall, Cecil, lion, white rhino, endangered, Africa, animal rights, hunting



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Existing comments

Where are we going in this sick world? Morals have disappeared and instant satisfaction has become a way of life. Anything goes! God help us!

Elena Christe | 31 July 2015  

Yes, sad indeed when we constrain our outrage and pity to the named and ignore the peril of the many nameless and equally hapless victims.

Peta Rakela | 31 July 2015  

I see similiarities between this case and the abortion debate - where on one hand it's the woman's right to dispose of a foetus, but in the case of a wanted pregnancy, every medical effort can be made available to save the life of a premature baby delivered early at the same stage of life it could equally have been aborted. And similarly when a pregnant woman is attacked and their unborn baby is harmed, there are legal rights, but not in the case of an unwanted baby.

AURELIUS | 31 July 2015  

I'd be happier if people thought more about the ordinary animals they eat for no good reason at all, as well as charismatic ones like Cecil.

Penelope | 03 August 2015  

Two stories this past week demonstrate just how brutal and delusional our culture has become: the shooting of Cecil the lion, and videos showing how Planned Parenthood has benefited from the sale of aborted fetal parts. Now if the carved up body of a baby doesn’t fill you with horror, how do you sift through the parts for hearts, livers, lungs, tiny hands and feet, and sometimes a face, and not react? In fact, compared to the numerous stories about Cecil, few media outlets have bothered with the Planned Parenthood story. It’s not that the humane treatment of animals and poaching is not an issue, rather it is priorities. G.K. Chesterton said the one thing worse than the weakening of major morals was the strengthening of minor ones. This explains why the modern world is more upset about the killing of one lion than the slaughter of millions of babies and their dismemberment for the resale of the best parts. Chesterton also said, “Wherever you have animal worship, you will have human sacrifice.” President Theodore Roosevelt posed proudly with big game he’d shot in Africa. Last April, President Obama said, “Thank you Planned Parenthood. God bless you.”

Ross Howard | 04 August 2015  

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